A Human By Any Other Name

You don’t need anyone to tell you this, especially not some random guy with no extra initials at the end of his name. It’s all over whatever preferred media consumption route you take. It’s troubling, it’s confusing, it’s frustrating and honestly, at times it’s annoying. As if it was on a schedule and refuses to be anything other than prompt, race once again has been thrust into the spotlight. For some, it never went away. Yet for others, I include myself in this group, it’s a topic that tends to go away after awhile. This time though, before it possibly fades away into the background, can we afford to ignore the opportunity to be honest with ourselves and really come to terms with our own opinions on race?

Recently, I took a break from taking a stance. I held back as much as I could from engaging in arguments. I suppressed the desire to confront those who had differing opinions than the ones I thought I had. I did this because, in all truthfulness, I really didn’t know what I thought about race.

Before I begin to put any of my own thoughts in order, I think the best thing to do is reveal my own experiences when it comes to race. I should at least be clear about how I identify myself. I don’t believe that my situation in completely unique, but I do feel it differs than the stories we hear most of the time.

The easiest way to do this is to use a method a coworker once suggested; if someone who didn’t know me had to describe me how would they do it? The answer to this would make me white. To be honest I’m normally perfectly fine with letting people describe me as such, I do it too at times. It’s not the whole story though.

In my wallet right now is a small card. It’s not a driver’s license, but essentially a membership card to a federally recognized Native American tribe. So using that, I could claim to be Native American, but my physical appearance wouldn’t tell anyone that and I don’t find the idea of having to show everyone my tribal I.D. all the time. It’s not like I’m offended by people not knowing this part of me. But whenever the issue of race comes up, I’m acutely aware that the whole story isn’t going to be told.

Identity alone though, isn’t enough to define a person’s full experience. It’s when that identity interacts with other people. I know I’ve had various events and situations where race is a factor, but there’s one period of time when it seemed that race, or more specifically, my race seemed to be at the forefront of a lot of my minutes.

I didn’t always have a tribal I.D. In fact, most of my life I didn’t have one. But then I decided to get one. It really should’ve been a simple process that didn’t spawn any sort of response from anybody, but I made the mistake of informing people of this decision before I did it. What I got was four clear reactions from two groups.

The first group was my friends, who are primarily white. Their response is probably best described as confusion followed by being strangely offended. First they just didn’t understand why I wanted to become “official” they couldn’t perceive any benefit of what I was planning on doing. After that I was confronted by things like “What’s so wrong with being white?” “Dude, you’re white.”

This didn’t actually upset me. I understood it. It’s really easy to interpret someone choosing to do something that breaks what had existed before as that person considering the previous state as inferior somehow. Unfortunately, at the time I didn’t know how to convey that my situation just wasn’t that.

The second group were Native Americans who I worked with. Their response can be described as mostly annoyance. As if I was some outsider trying to play on some technicality in order to integrate myself in a culture that wasn’t actually mine. Just another white guy with a Cherokee Princess grandmother. (I’m not actually Cherokee)

Once again, I understood this. I’ve always been very aware that the Natives in my town had a very insular culture. There’s enough historical and contemporary slights that make this seem necessary. Of course I’d be considered as a sort of invader.

I went through with getting my tribal I.D. though and to my surprise, those reactions stated previously, changed. It wasn’t gradual either, in fact, it was as close to immediate as possible.

First, my friends had dropped their offended personalities. Instead they would periodically treat me as a representative of Native Americans as well as a source of information. They would ask me questions about pow wows, moccasins, drums, and dancing. Somehow forgetting completely that I had never once beforehand expressed any true knowledge of these things.

Then, when the Natives from work found out that I now had the I.D. in my possession, they simply began to treat me better. I was included in certain jokes I hadn’t been before. Mistakes I had made previously weren’t treated with as much anger as before. Not to say I was treated as I was suddenly “one of them” (as terrible of a term as that is) but there was a very noticeable positive shift in their demeanors.

I wish that this story of my race was enough to define and give sense to my opinions on race, but it doesn’t. I know that they definitely inform my thoughts, but they don’t explain them. To do that, I’m going to have to put them down, in black and white.

This isn’t the end. Tune in next week for the completion of this, thing, I’m writing. 

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One thought on “A Human By Any Other Name

  1. Pingback: A Human By Any Other Name (part 2) | The Jon C Person Experiment

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